The Invisible Visible Man)
Saturday, 31 December 2016
I can’t remember much about it except that it was the mid-1970s somewhere near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. But I remember that my relative – my father’s cousin’s husband, whom we called my uncle – asked if I’d like a ride on his tandem. For a minute or two, I lurched around a field on the stoker seat at the back, before being deposited back with my father. It was the kind of brief, new experience that children from fortunate backgrounds are lucky enough to enjoy many times while growing up.
This experience had a far more profound effect on me than most other bits of childhood excitement, however. The ride was the first time I’d ever made a journey on two wheels, part of a process of learning about bicycles that has helped to shape both how I get about and, to some extent, who I am. My uncle and aunt were critical role models for me, much the keenest cyclists in the wider family and thoroughly steeped in the small-scale, self-contained British bicycling culture of their era. For a long time, I nurtured the intention of getting back in touch with them to tell them how much their example had meant to me. I wanted to share with them the many simple joys that riding a bike had brought into my life.
Yet a chance twitter exchange on December 21 led me to do a Google search on their names and come up against a surprising, sad discovery. Without my hearing about it, both died within the past two years – my uncle in February 2015 and my aunt this past November. I won’t be able to share a last conversation about cycling. Nor will I be able, as I’d long planned, to get to their funerals by bike, as a quiet tribute to how they inspired me.
The recognition of their having gone has, nevertheless, prompted me to reflect again on how the habit of cycling is propagated. In countries like the UK and the US, where cycling is a minority activity, many of us who ride bikes do so at least in part because some relative initiated us into cycling’s mysteries. My father taught me how to ride a bike and how to handle myself on the roads. But my uncle and aunt were examples of how a bike could be central to one’s daily transport and leisure time. They showed me that the self-reliance and communion with the world around that come with transport cycling could shape much of one’s life experience.